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Few things will stupefy a parent more than a child who freaks out in terror at the prospect of different foods. While this fear can be puzzling to deal with and even more perplexing to treat, this information should help parents understand their child’s behavior a little better.

Fear of new foods, officially referred to as neophobia, usually strikes during toddlerhood.  It typically begins after toddlers have been walking for a while and their willingness to accept new foods becomes limited to those foods they already know and trust.  Their reactions can be quite intense.  This is why parents often register it as fear.  Such behaviors are actually naturally-programmed reactions: throughout human history parents wouldn’t want their now mobile toddlers walking off and trying everything in site.  Neophobia is nature’s way of keeping your toddler from shoveling poisonous berries in his mouth – by making everything unfamiliar seem extremely undesirable.

Why kids fear food

Aside from neophobia in toddlerhood, fearful reactions to food may occur for any number of reasons:

  1. Most commonly, what appears to be fear is really just an acute overreaction by a child with a picky palate. Picky eaters may mistake sensations of displeasurable taste with pain. Therefore they can become fearful of foods they don’t like. This can be exasperated if parents react in an overly harsh manner to a child’s refusal to eat, causing them to associate certain foods with punishment.
  1. It may be the sensation of swallowing certain foods, which may leave a child feeling as though she’s choking.
  1. It might be because of a bad experience in the past, such as choking on a food or having it enter the windpipe accidentally, causing a painful sensation.
  1. In some cases it could be a symptom of sensory integration disorder, which is a hypersensitivity to certain sensory experiences. Therefore tastes or textures that we handle without issue can seem excruciating (and thus scary) to an affected child.
  1. Young children may have misperceptions about what happens to food once they eat it. They may envision it staying whole and becoming a part of their body, which can give rise to a whole host of other anxieties surrounding food.
  1. Some children are especially prone to magical thinking, and may go through a phase when they attribute foods with having a spirit or human-like qualities. This may in turn lead to fears that certain foods might exact revenge on them later, or create other anxieties about eating.
  1. Especially active kids may not want to take the time out from playing to eat, and therefore parents may misinterpret a child’s distress at meal times for fear.

Helping children overcome food fears:

  1. Try to decipher any patterns that may exist in your child’s fears. Is it related to texture? Taste? Appearance? Color?
  1. Talk to kids about the digestion process and what happens to foods after we eat them. Explain that they go straight down the throat into our stomach, where they are broken down. The intestines then pull tiny bits of nutrients from food that our body uses, and then the rest is discarded out our other end. It doesn’t stay whole, and it doesn’t navigate in-tact to other parts of the body.

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